On the 7th November 2017 the Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey, announced new arrangements for the Forestry Commission in England which will strengthen the role of the Forestry Commission and will protect England's forests for future generations.
From April 2019 (the changes will coincide with the Forestry Commission's Centenary year) Scottish Ministers will take on full responsibility for their national forests. The Forestry Commission will remain in England and will continue to manage more than 250,000 hectares of England's Public Forest Estate continuing to protect, improve and expand the forest, with a new board of Commissioners established to oversee this.
In response to the announcement, Friends of Thetford Forest (FoTF) Chair Anne Mason stated "Friends of Thetford Forest is delighted about the 'Bright Future for the Forestry Commission' and for the Public Forest Estate (PFE) within it. A Board of Commissioners whose responsibility will be the PFE is what we’ve advocated and campaigned for."
What's happening with plans to protect the Public Forest Estate (PFE) for the Nation? Well, as Bjork might say, 'it's all so quiet'. The Scottish independence and Brexit referenda, not to mention a snap general election, have all pushed the issue further and further down the political agenda.
With the impending arrival of a number of initiatives such as the Environment 25 Year Plan, the collective minds of the forestry sector are now on other things. Not least, how to sustain the current level of public subsidies for private woodlands when the UK leaves the EU.
In October, Friends attended an event on the future of UK forestry. We heard reaffirmation of commitments to increase the level of tree cover in England to 12% and to plant 11 million trees.
Delegates were asked what they saw as the major challenges and opportunities ahead but the most noticeable thing from our point of view was how little the PFE featured in most organisations' thinking. However, it is the PFE that underpins commercial forestry in this country and provides huge opportunities for conservation and public access.
This is why it is so important for small community groups such as Friends to continue to take every opportunity to press the case for PFE protection. We haven't forgotten the perils that our publicly - owned forests faced back in 2010 and continue to call for the Government to honour the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry's report in 2012 to hold the PFE in trust for the Nation.
We have invited the Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Forestry Minister Dr Therese Coffey to visit Thetford Forest and see for themselves the huge benefits that it brings to local people and the economy
Since the initial success of the campaign to prevent the sell-off of our public forests in 2010 led to the Government of the day abandoning such plans, FoTF have continued to play a leading role fighting to keep Thetford Forest in public ownership.
Our strategy has focused on three main areas:
Recently, it is the third of these that has come to the fore with proposals to begin charging for access to St. Helen's picnic site. FoTF understands the financial pressures that FEE is facing. In Thetford Forest, income from forestry operations will suffer as the quantity of timber reaching economic maturity approaches a cyclical low combined with the effects of diseases such as red-band needle blight which affects tree growth. Financial support from Defra has reduced over recent years and FEE has to look to other ways to balance the books.
While FoTF has no objection in principle to increased efficiency and more commercial activity on the PFE, we have concerns as to where this might take us. We do not, for example, object to sensitively-sited forest holiday lodges that can make a significant contribution to a Forest District's income, even though some find these highly controversial.
But we do object to charging the public for general access to forests and land that they already own and we fear that once established, charging will become the norm for all Thetford Forest picnic sites.
Social and environmental benefits are hard to quantify in financial terms and even harder to make an income from. That is why we fully support the Independent Panel on Forests (IPF) Report in 2012 that asked for £22 million of public money per year to ensure the provision of these benefits for the long term across the whole of England. This relatively small amount of money equates to 80p per household per year. In 2013, the PFE cost the taxpayer £63 per hectare - payments under The Single Farm Payment scheme to lowland farmland cost £200 per hectare (Rod Leslie - "Forest Vision"). It is clear to us that properly funded, the PFE is the most efficient way to provide public benefits from public money.
FoTF remains committed to working constructively with the Forestry Commission on all aspects of our work within Thetford Forest, including proactively seeking sustainable solutions for difficult funding decisions. But we will also publicly voice our concerns when necessary.
The public consultation over St. Helens will be run again during the summer.
We encourage everyone to have their say!
Friends of Thetford Forest is an independent voluntary organisation with twenty-two years' experience of helping care for Thetford Forest.
Ms Greer's expressed wish to "fell the Forest" appears to disregard the value of Thetford Forest for timber production, wildlife, archaeology and recreation. As part of the Public Forest Estate, it belongs to us all and the Forestry Commission carries out multi-purpose management on our behalf.
In particular, Thetford Forest is a working landscape, producing timber for the nation and providing employment not only for foresters but for contractors, sawmillers, hauliers and tourism-related businesses. Forest Design Plans provide for continuity and sustainability so that there are always young tree seedlings ready to be planted out to take the place of the mature trees as they are harvested.
Far from being "a bit of old Scots Pine", Corsican Pine, Douglas Fir, Larch, Weymouth Pine and broadleaves are also grown. In 2014, Thetford Forest won a Royal Forestry Society award for its experimental planting schemes trialling a range of species to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Thetford Forest is of high conservation value, designated an internationally important Special Protection Area (SPA) for its woodlark and nightjar and a nationally designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its birds, plants, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates and geology.
The Forest's mosaic of different habitats provides the wildlife corridors which Ms Greer advocates to enable species to move freely through the countryside. In fact, the Forest has a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designation encompassing the 1,300ha of Breck type open grassland within it, managed for its rare wildlife by the Forestry Commission in partnership with conservation organisations.
Beneath the trees are prehistoric flint mines, Bronze Age burial mounds; probably the most extensive medieval warrening archaeology anywhere; gunflint mines and first and second world war sites. It was the planting of the Forest from the 1920s that protected this historic landscape; on adjacent farmland, it has been ploughed out.
Thetford Forest is the third most visited attraction in the region with over 1.5 million visitors annually. It is a significant open access space in East Anglia and attracts regular visitors within a fifty mile radius who come to enjoy the varied outdoor recreation opportunities it offers. How can Ms Greer justify the loss of the largest lowland pine forest in the country which has a proven record for delivering for timber production, wildlife and people?
Since public opinion forced the Government to abandon its plan to sell off our forests and woods in 2013, Friends of Thetford Forest has lobbied for a Public Forest Estate protected by law. It clearly needs to continue its campaign so that future generations can enjoy and benefit from Thetford Forest.
FFriends of Thetford Forest (FoTF) is a voluntary organisation set up in 1995 to help increase understanding, knowledge and enjoyment of the Forest Park and to encourage the involvement and support of the community in its development. It has a membership of one thousand, three hundred and nine corporate members. Friends’ gives over 4000 volunteer hours annually to help conservation of wildlife; improve access for everyone; undertake archaeology projects and help the Forestry Commission at events.
Please contact Anne Mason, Chair of Friends of Thetford Forest, in connection with this Press Release.